During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global."
We"ve addressed several aspects of this promise in other items, but the part of the promise we haven"t taken up elsewhere is the part about stopping the development of new nuclear weapons.
After taking a fresh look at this promise recently, we concluded that we had used the wrong criteria to make our last rating. We had focused on what the United States was doing to stop the development of new nuclear weapons around the world. Instead, we should have focused on what the U.S. was doing to avoid designing and producing a new generation of nuclear weapons at home. So we"ll use the new criteria in this rating.
In April 2010, the administration released the Nuclear Posture Review, a periodic, wide-ranging assessment by the administration of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy. The review concluded that the United States should continue the principles underlying the existing Stockpile Stewardship Program, which refurbishes older weapons to a state close to their original specifications.
"The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads," the review stated. "Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. … The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components."
This would seem to support the president"s promise, but there"s a caveat. In December 2010, when the Senate was considering ratification of the New Start accord -- an agreement with Russia to cut nuclear weapons -- the White House and its Senate allies agreed to a proposal by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of New Start"s strongest skeptics. In the quest to win votes, the White House promised to spend $85 billion over 10 years to "modernize" the nation"s nuclear weapons complex.
According to Global Security Newswire, the projects include "extending the service lives of Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons, including those carried by the B-61 gravity bomb and the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, as well as building new facilities to research and process warhead uranium and plutonium."
There are many ways that this $85 billion can be spent without conflicting with the no-new-weapons pledge in the Nuclear Posture Review. But observers say the line is fuzzy.
There"s "a complex discussion" under way about "how many changes can be made before a weapon is considered a 'new" nuclear weapon," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-weapons policy specialist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
And advocates of new nuclear weapons systems can be expected to keep up the pressure. "It is essential that the United States develop and test new nuclear weapons for the 21st century, rather than rely on systems designed to respond to a massive Soviet nuclear weapons attack," wrote the conservative Heritage Foundation in a June 2011 issue brief.
Given an opportunity in the Nuclear Posture Review to change U.S. policy on developing new-generation nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration decided to stay with the status quo -- favoring replacement parts over new designs. There will almost certainly be continuing skirmishes over this issue, and the modernization funds provide a pot of money that could be used to create new-generation weapons. But that hasn"t happened yet. If it does, we may change our ruling, but for now, we"ll call this a Promise Kept.